The five areas where I can’t afford to be low-maintenance.

I’m on book tour for I’d Rather Be Reading right now, an experience which is renowned by authors as being tons of fun and tons of exhausting. Before I left, I consciously laid out my priorities. Beyond connecting with readers and booksellers (the best!) I realized that if I wasn’t conscientious about prioritizing some boring essentials, like sleep, I wasn’t going to make it to the end without getting burned out and physically ill.

In all the preparations, my mind kept coming back to this post. My 2015 self who first wrote this piece has served as a guide to my 2018 book tour self. With that in mind, I’m reposting today. Please load up the comments section with your recommendations for self-care and sanity preservation. Thank you

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I recently read Dan Harris’s book 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works—A True Story. It was an obligation read—I picked it up because I felt like I “should”—and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it and how genuinely useful it was.

Harris’s journey began when he had a panic attack on live television. Harris, an ABC news anchor, was filling in on Good Morning America when, in his words, he was “overtaken by a massive, irresistible blast of fear.” He couldn’t finish the broadcast.

His doctor quickly identified the cause: drug use. After several years covering wars in Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine, and Iraq, Harris became depressed, and began to self-medicate with cocaine and ecstasy. The drugs boosted the level of adrenaline in his brain, upping the odds of a panic attack. But when he quit using drugs, the side effects lingered. He spent years investigating—personally and professionally—his own mindlessness, exploring the changes he needed to make in his life to be healthier and happier. In 10% Happier, he tells the whole story.

Harris made an offhand comment on page 98 that really clicked for me. He was recounting a conversation with his doctor, in which his doctor told him to treat himself like a thoroughbred: Harris needed to “not only refrain from drugs but also engage in careful mental and physical upkeep in order to stay balanced.”

This idea is not new to me. I often reference the “orchid child” analogy to describe one of my own kids. (Dandelions can thrive almost anywhere, but orchids require a very specific environment to bloom.) The concept is similar.

The idea isn’t new, but I never thought it applied to me. However, like Harris, I need careful mental and physical upkeep in order to stay balanced. And like Harris, I started my own journey when my anxiety switch was flipped on 9/11. (Anxiety isn’t at the heart of my struggle, like it was for Harris, but when I don’t take decent care of myself, I’m much more vulnerably to anxiety, and at that point it can quickly turn into a big deal.)

My circumstances weren’t nearly as dramatic as his, and yet—I used to pride myself on being pretty low-maintenance, and now I’m just not. At least not in these areas, where I require the thoroughbred (or orchid) treatment:

1. Food. Since I got pregnant for the first time, I’ve been prone to hypoglycemia. As long as I eat the foods that are right for me, when I’m supposed to eat them, and avoid the stuff that makes me feel like crap, I’m fine. But I can’t eat just anything without suffering the consequences.

2. Caffeine. I adore coffee, but in a cruel twist of fate, my caffeine tolerance vanished overnight several years ago. Now caffeine makes me feel panicky.

3. Sleep. I need a minimum 7.5 hours every night. Being short of sleep makes me physically and emotionally vulnerable, and sometimes makes me feel crazy. (What day is it? What city am I in?) I don’t always get it, and when I don’t I need to catch up fast: I slept a blissful ten hours in my own bed last night because I didn’t sleep enough, or well, last weekend.

4. Mental space. I need time alone to recharge and quiet time to let my thoughts spin out.

5. Meditation. I wouldn’t have put this on the list a month ago. I did this back in 2001-02 to get a grip again when my 9/11 recovery felt more like a chronic illness than a lingering scar. When I started to get better, I dropped the habit. But last month my therapist recommended that I take it up again right after I finished Harris’s book, in which he makes a strong case for meditation. I believe in signs, so I began again, this time using the Headspace app. I’d rather fall out of bed and do something else first thing, but lately I’m needing this morning tune-up for the mind.

I’d like to be an easy to please girl—but when it comes to these five areas, I can’t afford to be low maintenance.

Do you have areas in your life where YOU can’t be low maintenance? I’d love to hear your thoughts on those, and if you resonate with the thoroughbred or orchid analogies, in comments.

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  1. Carrie Smith says:

    I can’t afford to be low maintenance in the food area, either. I avoid meat and dairy, which keeps my inflammation down dramatically. I feel it when I slip up. I also can’t be low maintenance spiritually. I thrive when I am consistently reading/studying the Bible and praying (not always an easy task now, since I’m pregnant and have two crazy little boys:).

  2. Beth Miller says:

    Anne, you might enjoy Light Watkins’s book about meditation called “Bliss More.” Not too long–so great for novices. Has been life-changing for me! He would also be a fantastic podcast guest!

    • Ruth says:

      I am the same way! When I don’t exercise, I get crazy and unpredictable (probably because of bottled up energy). It’s also a way to de-stress and let my mind sort itself out.

  3. Lori East says:

    Yes, yes, and yes! My job requires something similar to book tour life, not consistently but in short, intense bursts. It is tons of fun but exhausting. After years (!!) of coming home completely wiped out, I learned that if I didn’t take care of me, I was not at my best for anyone else. For me, like you, eating well, getting enough rest, and solitary time help immensely, but my favorite quick-fix is to seek out those tiny pockets of time that I can step outside of a venue, look up at the sky,and just breathe. It doesn’t take long, just a couple of minutes, but it’s grounding and sanity-preserving in a big way. I tend to get pretty myopic about work and my goals for that venue so reminding myself that there is a whole big world beyond me at that moment is refreshing.

  4. Katie Gamble says:

    Ironically, the area where I can’t be low maintenance is a good book (or three). Reading is the way I unwind from my day – no matter how early or how late. Without a book in my day – to read, to chat with others about, to reminisce about, I feel incomplete and unsettled. Go figure! 🙂

  5. Mine are, to varying extents, affected by HALT: hungry, angry, lonely, tired. If I’m any of those, my entire day goes sideways, so I try to focus on keeping myself fed, calm, engaged, and well-rested.

    Key word: try. There are some things I’m good at and things I am not good at at all.

    I’m very introverted, so I tend to be able to get enough engagement; situational elements aside, only when I’m depressed do I feel isolated and much of the time it’s because I don’t have the emotional energy to seek out engagement.

    For calm, I’m an HSP and so my emotions can be strong and create emotional chaos. But I find that reading, more than almost anything else, centers me. Any reading. But what also centers me is exercise. I struggle with anxiety and depression and it gets really bad when I’m not exercising. I find I need both calm exercise (long, multiple mile walks with the dog while listening to an audiobook or thinking or talking to my family) and throw myself into it completely exercise (barre, cardio barre). The more depressed I am, the more I need both.

    For hunger: not good at this. I forget to eat, eat too much, eat too little, or don’t choose good options for me. I’ve also had a yearlong battle with my antidepressant that meant I was hungry all the time and snacking constantly to keep my blood sugar up but did not want to be. I am off that now on a different antidepressant and now I’m not hungry at all and have to remind myself to eat. Go figure.

    For tired: Let’s just say that if I don’t get 8+ hours of sleep, I have to physically drag myself out of bed and that my Fitbit told me the last weeknight I got 8 hours of sleep was this past Thursday and only when I work from home so I get that much sleep because I can literally go from asleep to work in twenty minutes because I can shower during lunch and do my half hour of morning cystic fibrosis treatments while I work.

    That’s also important: take my meds, do my treatments. I notice immediately if I don’t, either in a more general matter or in a very acute “breathing is hard” way.

      • Louise says:

        I found your comment really interesting. I’m going to use this myself in future. If life seems to be derailing, I’m going to HALT and figure out if I’m hungry, angry, lonely or tired. Then address that. That is a very succinct way of summing up what often turns molehills into mountains. Thank you!

  6. Susan Berke says:

    Same 5 for me, adding in #6 exercise, #7 daylight and #8 water. I exercise an hour every morning before work, by myself, outdoors year round. I do my best problem solving and any emotional or mental stresses get perspective. Daylight is hard with an office job but I try to get outside at lunch. And my minimum is 1.5 gallons of water and day and I use a gallon jug at home and at work to track it. With fibromyalgia, it took me almost being in disability to prioritize self-care and figure out what I needed to do. As long as I keep those 8 things scheduled and prioritized, I am living a normal life on NO meds!! I hadn’t heard the orchid analogy but that’s helpful. I like to say that I am an ecosystem, and if even one small piece of it is out of order, the whole is out of order It helps friends understand why I can’t …..(eat that, stay out that late, “just this once”, etc). Makes my ‘no’ more understandable.

  7. Sally says:

    I am high maintenance when it comes to pens. Life is too short to write with a bad pen. Which explains why I always have at least five of my favorites in my purse at all times!

  8. Janelle says:

    After almost having surgery a couple of years ago, I regularly have a massage. It’s the best hour of my month and the most relaxing. I would almost pay to pay in her quiet dark room – it’s that relaxing. It’s been wonderful for my body & mental state!!

    • Ruth-Anne Hayes says:

      Anne, I wholeheartedly agree! I need sleep, movement, and a strict anti-inflammatory diet to keep myself off the anxiety crazy train. I need plenty of margin in my calendar and have to start each morning reading for at least an hour before anyone else awakens. After years of neglecting myself, my body finally broke resulting in fibromyalgia. As Brene Brown says, “You cant give what you don’t have.” If I don’t care for myself and I have no care to offer others. Love your blog and your books!

  9. Sue says:

    I am reading so many of the same themes in these responses! It seems humans all need these same things, which are sleep, proper nutrition, exercise, down time, self reflection, and connection to God and others. I know these things are my non negotiables!

  10. Monica says:

    I would say that I need everything in balance. I go to the gym daily and it is a lifesaver for me. I work hard to eat right, which is always a battle and enjoy time with family and friends. I am a retired teacher and I miss that a lot. So I became very involved in our library book sale.

  11. Eva says:

    I am so similar, and I love the idea of the orchid child…makes me feel a bit more understood. I just cut back to decaf lattes because I found regular caffeine was just too much for me. I didn’t have panic attacks (yet, anyway), but I was having anxiety that gripped me the entire day and kept my mind going at a mile a minute. I found that sleep and low amounts of caffeine were essential to keeping me feeling good. But also, taking time to do nothing seems to be essential for keeping me balanced. I can’t work constantly, my brain just won’t do it. But when I take breaks and nurture myself, I do much better work. It takes time to learn those things about yourselves.

    Eva |

  12. Anna says:

    Space before bed. I need 20 minutes to unwind and relax before I get in bed. I’ve had anxiety and insomnia since I was 5 and the house across the street burned down in the night; I was terrified for years. Over those years, my brain conditioned itself to start worrying when I lie awake. Now, I am careful to never get in bed with a busy mind. 20 minutes to read, take a warm bath, drink tea — anything makes a big difference in my sleep quality AND quantity.

  13. Jerri says:

    I can’t afford to be low maintenance about alone time and exercise. I often combine the two with another necessity, being outside. Taking a long walk outside daily of every other day is so rejuvenating for me. When weather or busyness prohibits this, I do become a little antsy.

  14. Rebecca says:

    I cannot be low maintenance when it comes to things that make my morning routines hum: an organized closet, waking up to clean dishes, and since I had a kiddo – a solid breakfast with a cup of tea.

  15. I’m with you on the sleep and downtime. I get super irritable if there are too many social events or too many late nights. In my older age (40), I’ve become much more stringent about sticking to these priorities even though it annoys some people around me.

    I also have little kids and I think dealing with the kids if I’ve skimped on sleep or alone time vastly exacerbates the problem. Before kids, I was much more able to slide by.

  16. Guest says:

    All of the ones you’ve mentioned plus:
    – Walking. I’ve loved to take walks since I was a child. Last year I realized I was feeling very sad and couldn’t figure out why. My work schedule and personal commitments had been so heavy that I hadn’t been taking my daily walk(s). One day I got out and walked and had the best day and it hit me – I NEED MY WALKS!
    – Heavy filtering of what I watch/read/hear. I’m an extroverted HSP and I have learned I absolutely cannot routinely watch the news. I can’t watch crime shows/read crime books or other over suspenseful, traumatic things.
    – Limiting online time. Hard since I work on a computer for 10+ hours per day but too much Internet gives me the same mental feeling that too much junk food gives me physically. Yuck.

  17. ellen says:

    Hey Anne!
    No low maintenance for me when traveling by plane… Compression socks are my savior. They keep my ankles/feet from uber swelling up and are quite comfortable (as long as you wear the size that fits you.)

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